Fearful Symmetry: The Case of Abortion Rights

Jeff Roberson/AP Photo

Abortion rights supporters take part in a protest in St. Louis. 

Today’s Exhibit A is abortion rights. And today’s culprit is this recent piece in The New York Times, headlined: “As Passions Flare in the Abortion Debate, Many Americans Say ‘It’s Complicated.’” 

The offending journalist who wrote this piece, Times reporter Jeremy Peters, frames it thus:

The nuance in how Americans … view abortion has largely fallen out of the noisy national dialogue about when women should be able to end their pregnancies. Complex questions—of medicine, morality, personal empowerment, and the proper role of government—are often reduced to the kind of all-or-nothing propositions that are ever more common in the polarized politics of the Trump era.

Peters goes on to contend that defenders of abortion rights, pushed by the absolutism of the right, are now as absolutist as those who want to prohibit abortion.

How to say this politely? Peters’s assertion is total malarkey.

It is another case of the far fringe dragging the debate to the right, and journalists in an effort to be “fair” depicting a false symmetry—and thus doing the right’s bidding.

Americans have been personally ambivalent about whether and why to have an abortion ever since Roe v. Wade. Nobody is eager to have an abortion.

At the same time, majorities of Americans have long believed that the decision of whether to have an abortion, however reluctantly, belongs to the woman. Most Americans are not ambivalent about the policy.

Is this all that complicated? The only thing that has changed is that anti-abortion groups, looking to far-right courts, have come up with one subterfuge after another to make abortion almost impossible to obtain, and have thus muddied the waters. But journalists are supposed to see through this.

When reporter Peters selectively quotes abortion rights defenders, he conflates defense of rights with enthusiasm for the procedure:

“Nonnegotiable,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has said. “There is no middle ground,” Senator Bernie Sanders declared.

But of course the only thing that is non-negotiable is the woman’s right to choose, just as it has been ever since Roe v. Wade. For half a century, the consensus in this country has been that abortion should be “legal, safe, and rare.” It is still the consensus.

Let’s unpack the three elements of that triad.

Legal: Women have the right to choose an abortion, without artificial barriers created by right-wing state governments.

Safe: Medical facilities that provide abortions should be first-class clinics and hospitals, and not hundreds of miles from their patients. Doctors who perform abortions should not be at personal risk. Patients should not be harassed.

Rare: With good sex education and available birth control, abortion should be a last resort. And indeed, the rate of unplanned pregnancies has been falling.

Now, much of the right is not just opposed to abortion, but to sex. It is opposed to birth control and to sex education. The assault on women’s agency comes not just via restriction of a woman’s choice to have an abortion, but the woman’s choice to have sex on her own terms.

Peters writes:

Liz Allen, a Democratic member of the Erie City Council who calls herself “anti-abortion but pro-choice,” said she wishes her party encouraged women with a wide range of experiences around pregnancy to speak up.

Well, guess what? Nearly everyone is “anti-abortion but pro-choice,” in the sense that nobody is enthusiastic about having an abortion. Peters, looking to write a fair and balanced piece, has conjured up a false case of supposedly new anxiety.

The latest efforts to limit abortion rights have been built on subterfuge. Supposedly, we are only trying to protect religious freedoms of people who oppose abortion; or we are resisting the use of abortion as birth control; or we want to be sure that viable fetuses are not aborted; or we want to protect women by making sure hospital access is nearby.

This is all disingenuous. The goal is to make abortions as difficult to get as possible and then prohibit them altogether.

Which brings me back to that New York Times piece.

The right has succeeded in conflating three entirely different issues, and bringing the press along for the ride. First, are people ambivalent about abortion? Yes, but that is not exactly a stop-the-presses moment. It has always been the case. Women who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy make a choice that is sometimes agonizing.

Second, are people ambivalent about abortion rights? Most Americans are not. 

Third, are there some divisive policy questions? Yes, there are. For instance, should Medicaid cover abortions? (This is hard mainly for people who want either to limit Medicaid or to limit abortions.)

Late-term abortion, which Peters mistakenly uses as another example of an issue causing division and consternation, is mostly a canard created by the anti-abortion far right. Virtually nobody uses late-term abortion as optional infanticide. Almost all late-term abortions are performed because the fetus is horribly deformed or the woman’s life and health are at serious risk.

By pulling the debate farther and farther to the right, the anti-abortion lobby has not only damaged the rights of women; it has confused gullible reporters, who allow the right to define where the new center is.

On the abortion issue, the center is just where it always was—legal, safe, and rare.

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